There was nothing about being born from above, or toeing the straight and narrow, or minding your P’s and Q’s when Abraham was taking God up on the deal for progeny and promised lands. It was just a straightforward “I’ll be your God, and you’ll be my people” kind of understanding. There was nothing about keeping the law, or believing everything in the Westminster Longer (or Shorter) Catechism, in order to get—and stay—right with God. In the beginning, things were not as they came to be. It is a principle that is valid and true everywhere in our lives.
Today, the world is different from the world we were born into. Tomorrow, the world will be different from today. It may well be different enough for us to notice the difference immediately. “Hey!” we may say upon getting out of bed, “Who changed my life over night?”
Streets are re-routed, baseball stadiums are built, and old ones become parking lots, new housing developments crop up where woods and pastures once were, our hearts quit working, cancer is diagnosed… The list is long. We cannot count on anything staying the same very long. You might think we would get used to it. We don’t. We buck and snort at the very idea every time. Change that is thrust on us without our permission is one of the things we hate most about our lives. We grow less tolerant of it as time goes by.
We become accustomed to the way things are. It becomes exactly our idea of how things ought to be. Our expectations are often disheveled by a simple unannounced turn of events. This isn’t what we are looking for! This isn’t how things are supposed to be! Where are the monkeys? Where are the clowns? What kind of circus is this, anyway? Once we begin to impose our idea of circus on the experience at hand, we cut ourselves off from the experience, and wander lost among the ruins of what once was our life.
When the map we are using no longer fits the territory, we have to update the map. We have to let go of how it used to be, and accommodate ourselves to how things are. There used to be a dairy farm where the shopping center is, and a feed and seed store where the exit ramp is—or, maybe not. There were hills here then, everything has been leveled, and it’s hard to know where anything was. The trick is to stop trying to orient ourselves in this world based on our fond recollections of that world. To have a chance in this world, we have to let that world go.
If we were space explorers stepping into the landscape of a new planet, we would not be disturbed to find that things were different than they were in the world of our origin. We would expect differences, embrace them, experience them, wonder about them, open ourselves to them, and see what we could learn from them. The truth is that we are explorers, getting out of bed each morning, stepping into the landscape of a new world. There is much to be learned in it—much to be gained from it. Life is unfolding before us, opening up, waiting for us to open up in return, so that it might show us unexpected wonders, and introduce us to magnificence beyond imagining.
We are looking for the monkeys and the clowns, and our life is tugging at us, trying to get our attention, so that it might take us through Tomorrow World and beyond—and perhaps give us a spin on the Wall of Death.
The Wall of Death, made famous by the song with that title by Richard Thompson, is a motorcycle ride that is a step or two beyond carousels, guaranteed to provide you with thrills and chills, and maybe, spills, aplenty.
I’m using the term, “Wall of Death,” as a synonym for being “born from above”—because the new life “from above,” will eat your old life alive. Or did you think the metaphors of Gethsemane, and Golgotha, have nothing to do with you transitioning from your old life to your new life?
Death is the prerequisite for life. In dying on the cross, Jesus is saying, “This is the way it is done! Come, follow me!” Somehow we missed that in all of the Bible studies, sermons and Sunday school lessons. The Spiritual Journey is a remedial course in how thing are. First we die, to how we thought things are, then we live, going, “Ohhhh… So this is how things are!”
This is a good place to recall Joseph Campbell’s words: “That which you seek lies far in the back of the cave you most don’t want to enter.” We have to die in order to live.
Nicodemus went to talk to Jesus at night, perhaps to keep from being seen, and is startled to hear that his old, comfortable, staid religion has been superseded by a lusty, young, start-up faith of the streets and market place. We are always stunned and undone to discover a new world has replaced the old one overnight. However, once we understand the Bible as the history of the evolution of the idea of God, it all begins to fall into place. Jesus stands before us all and says, “What you seek is in the back of the cave.”
The God the writer we call Second Isaiah perceived was radically different from the warrior God of Moses. The God Jesus called Father, was radically different from the God who sent Elijah to destroy the prophets of Baal. Nicodemus has to confront the fact that what he has always thought has to be re-thought, re-formed, transcended, in order to keep pace with the power of life that is always breaking out of history to transform the world again, with the spirit that is “like the wind that blows where it will.”
Jesus tells Nicodemus he has to take his chances in a world that is different from the world he has always known. God is up to something outside of the Temple! Outside of Jerusalem, God forbid! Out there in the wilderness of Galilee, of all places, and beyond!
God is stirring things up and making all things new! There is a fresh, innovative spirit blowing over the face of the deep, and Jesus is the harbinger of things to come, the merchandiser of new wine skins, the ticket master of the Wall of Death.
Being born from above means taking our chances. It all starts with being open to the moment, with our being alert to the nuances of the time that is at hand. Jesus’ indictment was that the people did not know “the time of their visitation.” They were looking for something else. They were looking for the comfortable old depictions of the Messiah to be unfolded before their eyes—but the Messiah wasn’t who they thought he would be.
Fred Craddock said the message of the Messiah is: “There is no Messiah!” There is no one to do for us what we must do for yourselves! We all have to “take our chances on the Wall of Death.” We each must make our way to the back of the cave we most don’t want to enter! What we want is not what we get. The first thing that has to go is our idea of how it ought to be—and, that’s generally the last thing that goes.
We like our little nests. We like our comfortable constructions regarding who God is, and how the church is supposed to be. When it doesn’t feel like “church” to us, we blame the liturgy, or the hymns, or the sermons. We don’t allow our resistance, our objections, to show us anything about ourselves. We don’t open ourselves readily to new experiences that are capable, if we let them, of leading to surprising reversals, inexpressible wonders, and amazing revelations.
We cannot look at the world in the same way we have always looked at the world and see how the world has changed. We have to see the world with new eyes if we hope to see a new world, if we hope to see the world that is blooming, budding, and unfolding before us. To have a chance of seeing more than we have ever seen before we are going to have to expose ourselves to new ways of looking, new ways of perceiving, new ways of experiencing—all of which are part and parcel of knowing “the time of our visitation,” and being “born from above,” and going for a life-long ride on the Wall of Death.
Will we do it, is the question. Can we do it, is the other question. Can we die to one way of life in order to live to another? Will we?
Will we set theology, and doctrine, and dogma aside, and step into the silence, sit quietly in the stillness, and wait to see what emerges? And follow where it leads? And go where it sends us? And become who it asks us to be?
It would be like dying to be quiet, and still, long enough to hear, would it not? To reflect on “the cave we most don’t want to enter” long enough for new realizations to arise? To look, and keep on looking, long enough to see?
Who has time for that? “Just tell us what to believe, Preacher, and make it short, I tee off at 12:15!” There’s no time for dying there!
An empty chair in the silent stillness can be the cave we most don’t want to enter. The Wall of Death has few takers. The Way waits for a traveler with what the journey requires: “Sit down, be quiet. Wait in the stillness to see what emerges, for as long as it takes.”